Once again your movie critic makes some terrible errors. In his review of Pocahontas [June 30], he talks about the “genocide” of Native Americans by Europeans and cites the massive decline in population between 1500 and 1550 among indigenous peoples as evidence. What he didn’t mention was that the big killer was disease–smallpox, in particular. Reading the various accounts of the war between the Aztecs on one side and the Spanish and their native allies on the other, one of the big factors in the Aztec defeat was smallpox–a massive epidemic swept the Aztec empire during the war. And, when speaking of Cortes’s invasion, he misses the point that Cortes had only 500 men when he invaded–the vast majority of the manpower that defeated the Aztec empire was native, as a reading of any of the accounts of the conquest would make abundantly clear. Cortes was uncannily good at manipulating the grievances of native peoples for his own ends–few of his allies suspected that they were fighting the Aztec empire to become vassals of Spain instead. If your critic wants to broaden his knowledge of this part of history, I suggest he read one of the many books on the subject, or that he come down to one of the various universities in the Chicago area and talk to some historians. (I bought the myths on Cortes until I took Latin American Civilization at the University of Chicago: Professor Katz and Emilliano Corral, one of his TAs, were very good at getting out the facts instead of the myths.)
This is not to say that all the conquistadors were good guys–far from it. Aside from Cortes and a few of his associates, they were often brutal thugs–Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, fits the “genocidal” stereotype far better than Cortes. And Cortes himself wasn’t all smiles and sunshine–he was a ruthless individual. But they were not proto-Nazis who arrived on the shores of the New World with plans for a “Final Solution.”
On the plus side, I was glad to see him correct some of the myths about Pocahontas and reveal the error in Braveheart about Edward II’s wife [Letters, June 30]. He missed another one–pikes were around long before William Wallace. The scene where Wallace looks up at the trees and comes up with the idea of pikes is great in a movie, but historically inaccurate. Perhaps he can mention this when he apologizes to Cortes.
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
As far as I’m concerned, smallpox is merely one of the countless aspects of the genocide of Native Americans by Europeans that I alluded to, not an alternative explanation, and my passing reference to Cortes, misleading or not, was merely passing along information cited in Todorov’s The Conquest of America. Regarding Braveheart, I’ve neither seen nor reviewed the film, so the person who should be thanked in this connection is Anthony Puccinelli.